The Greek Text of the New Testament

This article, “Appendix 94: The Greek Text of the New Testament”, has been lifted entirely from “The Companion Bible” (pages 134-137) by E. W. Bullinger.  However, some sections of Bullinger’s article have been omitted here because they indicate how they are used in the notes of “The Companion Bible”, and are therefore not necessary for general reading.

I. Introduction

While modern critics are occupied with the problem as to the origin of the Four Gospels, and with their so-called “discrepancies”, we believe that MATTHEW, MARK, and JOHN got their respective Gospels where Luke got his, viz.  anothen = “from above” (Luke 1:3 “from the very first”); and that the “discrepancies”, so-called, are the creation of the Commentators and Harmonists themselves.  The latter particularly; for when they see two similar events, they immediately assume they are identical; and when they read similar discourses of our Lord, they at once assume that they are discordant accounts of the same, instead of seeing that they are repetitions, made at different times, under different circumstances with different antecedents and consequents, which necessitate the employment of words and expressions so as to accord with the several occasions.  These differences thus become proofs of accuracy and perfection.

The Bible claims to be the Word of God, coming from Himself as His revelation to man.  If these claims be not true, then the Bible cannot be even “a good book”.  In this respect “the living Word” is like the written Word; for, if the claims of the Lord Jesus to be God were not true, He could not even be “a good man”.  As to those claims, man can believe them, or leave them.  In the former case, he goes to the Word of God, and is overwhelmed with evidences of its truth; in the latter case, he abandons Divine revelation for man’s imagination.

II. Inspiration

In Divine revelation “holy men spake from God as they were moved (or borne along) by the Holy Spirit” (2 Pet 1:21).  The wind, as it is borne along among the trees, causes each tree to give forth its own peculiar sound, so that the experienced ear of a woodman could tell you, even in the dark, the name of the tree under which he might be standing, and distinguish the creaking elm from the rustling aspen.  Even so, while each “holy man of God” is “moved” by One Spirit, the individuality of the inspired writers is preserved.  Thus we may explain the medical words of “Luke the beloved physician” used in his Gospel and in the Acts of the Apostles (Col 4:14).

As to Inspiration itself, we have no need to resort to human theories, or definitions, as we have a Divine definition in Acts 1:16 which is all-sufficient.  “This scripture must needs have been fulfilled, which the Holy Ghost, by the mouth of David, spake before concerning Judas” (Ps 41:9).

It is “by the mouth” and “by the hand” of holy David’s voice and David’s pen, but the words were not David’s words.

Nothing more is required to settle the faith of all believers; but it requires Divine operation to convince unbelievers; hence, it is vain to depend on human arguments.

III. The Language

With regard to this, it is generally assumed that, because it comes to us in Greek, the N.T. ought to be in classical Greek, and is then condemned because it is not!  Classical Greek was at its prime some centuries before; and in the time of our Lord there were several reasons why the N.T. was not written in classical Greek.

1. The writers were Hebrews; and thus while the language is Greek, the thoughts and idioms are Hebrew….If the Greek of the N.T. be regarded as an inspired translation from Hebrew or Aramaic originals, most of the various readings would be accounted for and understood.

2. Then we have to remember that in the time of our Lord there were no less than four languages in use in Palestine, and their mixture formed the “Yiddish” of those days.

  • There was HEBREW, spoken by Hebrews
  • There was GREEK, which was spoken in Palestine  by the educated classes generally
  • There was LATIN, the language of the Romans, who then held possession of the land
  • And there was ARAMAIC, the language of the common people

Doubtless our Lord spoke all these (for we never read of His using an interpreter).  In the synagogue He would necessarily use Hebrew; to Pilate He would naturally answer in Latin; while to the common people He would doubtless speak in Aramaic.

3. ARAMAIC was Hebrew, as it was developed during and after the Captivity in Babylon.  (Footnote: It is so called because it was the language of Aram, or Mesopotamia, which is Greek for Aram Naharaim =  Aram between the two rivers (Gen 24:10; Deut 23:4; Judges 3:8; Ps 60 title).

There were two branches, known roughly as Western (Mesopotamian), or (and) Palestinian.

This latter was known also as Syriac; and the Greeks used “Syrian” as an abbreviation for Assyrian.  This was perpetuated by the early Christians.  Syriac flourished till the seventh century AD.  In the eighth and ninth it was overtaken by the Arabic; and by the thirteenth century it had disappeared.  We have already noted that certain parts of the O.T. are written in Chaldee (or Eastern Aramaic): viz. Ezra 4:8-6:18; 7:12-26; Dan 2:4-7.  Compare also 2 Kings 18:26.

Aramaic is of three kinds – 1. Jerusalem.  2 – Samaritan. 3 – Galilean

Of these, Jerusalem might be compared with High German, and the other two with Low German.

There are many Aramaic words preserved in the Greek of the N.T., and most of the commentators call attention to a few of them…….

IV. THE PAPYRI and OSTRACA

Besides the Greek text mention ought to be made of these, although it concerns the interpretation of the text rather than the text itself. 

We have only to think of the changes which have taken place in our own English language during the last 300 years, to understand the inexpressible usefulness of documents written on the material called papyrus, and on pieces of broken pottery called ostraca, recently discovered in Egypt and elsewhere.  They are found in the ruins of ancient temples and houses, and in the rubbish heaps of towns and villages, and are of great importance.

They consist of business-letters, love-letters, contracts, estimates, certificates, agreements, accounts, bills-of-sale, mortgages, school-exercises, receipts, bribes, pawn-tickets, charms, litanies, tales, magical literature, and every sort of literary production.

These are of inestimable value in enabling us to arrive at the true meaning of many words (used in the time of Christ) which were heretofore inexplicable……

V. THE MANUSCRIPTS

The manuscripts of the Greek New Testament dating from the fourth century A.D. are more in number than those of any Greek or Roman author, for these latter are rare, and none are really ancient; while those of the N.T. have been set down by Dr. Scrivener at not less than 3600, a few containing the whole, and the rest various parts of the N.T.

The study of these from a literary point of view has been called “Textual Criticism”, and it necessarily proceeds altogether on documentary evidence; while “Modern Criticism” introduces the element of human opinion and hypothesis.

Man has never made a proper use of God’s gifts.  God gave men the sun, the moon, and stars for signs and for seasons, to govern the day, and the night, and the years.  But no-one today can tell us what year (Anno Mundi) we are actually living in!  In like manner God gives us His Word, but man, compassed with infirmity, has failed to preserve and transmit it faithfully.

The worst part of this is that man charges God with the result, and throws the blame on Him for all the confusion due to his own want of care!

The Old Testament had from very early times official custodians of the Hebrew text.  Its Guilds of Scribes, Nakdanim, Sopherim, and Massorites elaborated plans by which the original text has been preserved with the greatest possible care….But though in this respect, it had advantages which the Greek text of the N.T. never had, it nevertheless shows many signs of human failure and infirmity.  Man has only to touch anything to leave his mark upon it.

Hence the MSS. of the Greek text are to be studied today with the utmost care.  The materials are:

i. The MSS. themselves in whole or in part

ii. Ancient versions made from them in other languages.  (Footnote: Of these, the Aramaic, or Syriac, i.e. the Peshitto, is the most important, ranking as superior in authority to the oldest Greek manuscripts, and dating from as early as A.D. 170.  Though the Church was divided by the Third and Fourth General Councils in the fifth century, into three, and eventually into yet more, hostile communions, which have lasted for 1400 years with all their bitter controversies, yet the same version is read today in the rival churches.  Their manuscripts have flowed into the libraries of the West, “yet they all exhibit a text in every important respect the same”.  Peshitto means a version simple and plain, without the addition of allegorical or mythical glosses.  Hence we have given this authority, where needed throughout our notes, as being of more value than the modern critical Greek texts; and have noted (for the most part), only those “various readings” which with the Syriac agrees…...

iii. Citations made from them by early Christian writers long before the oldest MSS. we possess….

i. As to the MSS. themselves we must leave all palaeographical matters aside (such as have to do with paper, ink, and calligraphy), and confine ourselves to what is material.

1. These MSS. consist of two great classes:  (a) Those written in Uncial (or capital) letters; and those written in “running hand”, called Cursives.

The former are considered to be more ancient, although it is obvious and undeniable that some cursives may be transcripts of uncial MSS. more ancient than any existing uncial MS.

2. It is more to our point to note that what are called “breathings” (soft or hard) and accents are not found in any MSS. before the eleventh century (unless they have been added by a later hand).

3. Punctuation also, as we have it today, is entirely absent.  The earliest two MSS. (known as B, the MS. in the Vatican and aleph the Sinaitic MS., now at St Petersburg) have only an occasional dot, and this on a level with the top of the letters.

The text reads on without any divisions between letters or words until MSS. of the ninth century, when (in Codex Augiensis, now in Cambridge) there is seen for the first time, a single point which separates each word.  This dot is placed in the middle of the line, but is often omitted.

None of our modern marks of punctuation are found until the ninth century, and then only in Latin versions and some cursives.

From this it will be seen that the punctuation of all modern editions of the Greek text, and of all versions made from it, rests entirely on human authority, and has no weight whatever in determining or even influencing the interpretation of a single passage.  This refers also to the employment of capital letters, and to all the modern literary refinements of the present day.

4. Chapters also were alike unknown.  The Vatican MS. makes a new section where there is an evident break in the sense.  These are called titloi, or kephalaia.

There are none in aleph (Sinaitic), see above.  They are not found till the fifth century in Codex A (British Museum) of the sixth century.

They are quite foreign to the original texts.  For a long time they were attributed to HUGUES DE ST. CHER (Huegode Sancto Caro), Provincial to the Dominicans in France and afterwards a Cardinal in Spain, who died in 1263.  But it is now generally believed that they were made by STEPHEN LANGTON, Archbishop of Canterbury, who died in 1227.

It follows therefore that our modern chapter divisions also are destitute of MS authority.

5. As to verses.  In the Hebrew O.T. these were fixed and counted for each book by the Massorites; but they are unknown in any MSS. of the Greek N.T.  There are none in the first printed text in the Complutensian Polyglot (1437-1517), or in the first printed Greek text (Erasmus in 1516), or in

Stephens’ first edition in 1550.

Verses were first introduced in Stephens’ smaller (16mo) edition, published in 1551 at Geneva.  These also are therefore destitute of any authority.

VI. THE PRINTED EDITIONS OF THE GREEK TEXT

Many printed editions followed the first efforts of ERASMUS.  Omitting the Complutensian Polyglot mentioned above, the following is a list of all those of any importance:

  1. Erasmus (1st edition) 1516
  2. Stephens 1546-9
  3. Beza 1624
  4. Elzevir 1624
  5. Griesbach 1774-5
  6. Scholz 1830-6
  7. Lachmann 1831-50
  8. Tischendorf 1841-72
  9. Tregelles 1856-72
  10. Alford 1862-71
  11. Wordsworth 1870
  12. Revisers’ Text 1881
  13. Westcott and Hort 1881-1903
  14. Scrivener 1886
  15. Weymouth 1886
  16. Nestle 1904

All the above are “Critical Texts” and each editor has striven to produce a text as being the so-called “Received Text” which the translators of the Authorized Version used in 1611.

VII. THE MODERN CRITICAL TEXTS…..

……GRIESBACH based his text on the theory of Three Recensions of the Greek MMS., regarding the collective witness of each Recension as one; so that a Reading having the authority of all three was regarded by him as genuine.  It is only a theory, but it has a foundation of truth, and will always retain a value peculiarly its own.

LACHMANN (L), disregarding these Recensions, professed to give the text based only on the evidence of witnesses up to the end of the fourth century.  All were taken into account up to that date, and all were discarded after it, whether uncial MSS., or cursives, or other documentary evidence.  He even adopted Readings which were palpably errors, on the simple ground that they were the best attested Readings up to the fourth century.

TISCHENDORF (T) followed more or less the principles laid down by Lachmann, but not to the neglect of other evidence as furnished by Ancient Versions and Fathers.  In his eighth edition, however, he approaches nearer to Lachmann’s principles.

TREGELLES (Tr) produced his text on principles which were substantially the same as Lachmann, but

he admits the evidence of uncial MSS. down to the seventh century, and includes a careful testing of a wide circle of other authorities.  The chief value of his text lies not only in this, but in its scrupulous fidelity and accuracy; and it is probably the best and most exact presentation of the original text ever published. (The Textus Receptus upon which the King James Version is based, is the most exact presentation of the original.  Tregelles’ text, despite this claim, is corrupt, as are all non TR texts – website author).

ALFORD (A) constructed his test, he says, “by following, in all ordinary cases, the united preponderating evidence of the most ancient authorities.”

When these disagree he takes a later evidence into account, and to a very large extent.

Where this evidence is divided he endeavours to discover the cause of the variation, and gives great weight to internal probability; and, in some cases, relies on his own independent judgment.

At any rate he is fearlessly honest.  He says, “that Reading has been adopted which, on the whole, seemed most likely to have stood in the original text.  Such judgments are, of course, open to be questioned”.

This necessarily deprives his text of much of its weight; though where he is in agreement with the other editors, it adds to the weight of the evidence as a whole.

WESTCOTT AND HORT (WH).  In this text, the classification of MSS. into “families” is revived, with greater elaboration than that of Griesbach.  It is prepared with the greatest care, and at present holds a place equal in estimation to that of Tregelles.

Where all these authorities agree, and are supported by the Syriac Version, the text may be regarded as fairly settled until further MS. evidence is forthcoming.

But it must always be remembered that some cursive MSS. may be copies of uncial MSS. more ancient than any at present known.  This fact will always lessen the value of the printed critical editions.

The Revisers of the N.T. of 1881 “did not deem it within their province to construct a continuous and complete Greek text”.  They adopted, however, a large number of readings which deviated from the text presumed to underlie the Authorized Version.  In 1896 an edition known as the Parallel N.T. Greek and English, was published by the Clarendon Press for both Universities.  In the Cambridge edition the Textus Receptus is given, with the Reviser’s alternative readings, in the margin.  In the Oxford edition, the Revisers give their Greek with the readings of the Textus Receptus in the margin.

Reference

The Companion Bible: The Authorized Version of 1611 with the Structures and Critical, Explanatory, and Suggestive Notes and with 198 Appendixes (by E. W. Bullinger), Originally published in 1922, publ. Kregel Publications, Grand Rapids, Michigan 49501